A review of an impressive new book: “Exponential” by Azeem Azhar

Around a decade and a half ago, Azeem Azhar – what a wonderfully alliterative name – and I served together as members of the Consumer Panel of Ofcom. the UK’s regulator of telecommunications and broadcasting. He is much younger and much smarter than me and went on to become a tech entrepreneur and tech analyst. Now he has written as good a book as you will find on the current state of technological change and the profound issues raised by the technology. 

Azhar’s main thesis can be simply stated: some of our most fundamental technologies are changing at an ever-faster pace so that, if plotted on a graph, they would follow a steeply-rising or exponential curve, while our institutions – whether governments, corporations, service providers or armed services – are responding in a much slower fashion that, again if represented on a graph, would show essentially a straight or incremental line. The result is what he calls the ‘exponential gap’. 

Of course, rates of change are hard to measure but he concentrates on technologies such as microelectronics where change can be measured and he defines an exponential technology as one that can, for a roughly fixed cost, improve at a rate of more than 10% per year for several decades. He writes particularly about change in four key sectors: computing, energy, biology and manufacturing. He explains what is driving this exponential revolution: the power of learning by doing, the increasing interaction and combination of new technologies, and the emergence of new networks of information and trade.

One very visible outcome is superstar companies or tech giants – the likes of Amazon and Google – who may be serving consumers well but are – in his view – exploiting smaller-scale producers and making economies progressively less dynamic. Additionally, of course, they do not pay their fair share of taxes, they control access to information and opinion, and they act beyond the control of governments and regulators. 

Azhar is a first-time author but this is a really impressive work. He has been well-served by both his editor (it is immensely readable) and his research team (the range of sources is considerable). The sub-title of the book is ‘How Accelerating Technology Is Leaving Us Behind And What To Do about It’. As with all such books, there is much more on the ‘How’ and than on the ‘What’. Azhar proposes a range of sensible suggestions – such as the mandation of interoperability between comparable networks, the adoption of the Danish system of ‘flexicurity’ and the devolution of political power to cities – but is hesitant about other ideas – such as a universal basic income or a digital bill of rights. 

I cannot help feeling that the totality of Azhar’s policy proposals are not adequate to the huge challenges that he so eloquently describes. It seems to me that, as well as an ‘exponential gap’, there is a ‘comprehension gap’. Most tech analysts do really understand politics or like politicians, while almost all politicians have very little understanding of technology and are rather in awe of technologists.

Ultimately these tech challenges require some big and bold political and regulatory solutions with radically new approaches to taxing corporate income and personal wealth, the empowering of worker and consumer bodies, and clever integration of human and artificial intelligence in a whole range of sectors including child care, education, training, health and social care. 


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